10° 40' N, 61° 30' W

Wednesday, October 23, 2002

My friend Nicholas Laughlin has a post on the situation at Trinidad's Caroni (1975) Limited. While I concur with his analysis of the Trinidad sugar industry, I disagree with his recommneded solution. As I wrote immediately below, in the absence of restrictions land generally goes towards it most highly valued use; in a densely-populated island, with over half of the land being state property, the notion that this is agiculture is questionable. Certainly there are viable crops that can be produced on part of the land in Trinidad and Tobago, and some of it needs to be set aside as watershed, forest and nature reserve. The suggestion, though, that Caroni's resources be redirected towards other crops is dubious; it's tantamount to industrial policy--the same thing that caused Caroni Ltd. to be set up to begin with.

Caroni is a failed enterprise; it has never made a profit, and exists solely as a palliative to sugar workers and cane farmers. There is not evident that a food security porgramme (where Trinidad became self-sufficent in food) is a wiser strategy. Trinidad does not have a comparative advantage in food production, for domestic or overseas consumption it's workers get paid too much for non-agricultural work, and the island's farmers have been slow in the adoption of modern technology. other than niche crops, the main base stapes of the local diet (wheat flour, rice, potatoes) are produced much cheaper. Consumers would be better off being able to buy rice and flour form any source other than National Flour Mills, with local agriculture shifting to higher-value crops, if viable. This should be a course decided on by individual farmers, though; the Government, looking at Caroni's dim situation, should stop throwing good money after bad and shut down the operation, sell off its assets, and ease the transition for the workers to other activities. (This won't happen for political reasons; no Afro-Trinidadian government would "needlessly" risk antagonising the Indo-Trinidadian opposition, and no Indo-Trinidadian government would needlessly upset much of its political base.)

If agriculture, as it currently exists in the country, is non-viable, then that challenge needs to be faced, less as a matter of policy than as a matter of social and economic change. Part of the reason why there are still international arguments over bananas is that the governments of the Leeward and Windward Islands, despite receiving over 25 years of protection under the European Lomé Conventions, never told banana growers that their lives would have to change, and that they probabaly could not grow bananas anymore, at least not at a competitive price. This is a failure of stasis--a desire of policy makers and others to keep things as they are, to live "in the old time days", to not face up to the present. Challenging this is not so much a matter of deep-thinking vision á-la-Manning as a willingness to see and adapt to change. Protesting cane farmers want to continue to live in the past, and no one is willing to step up and tell them they can't.